“China over-reached” is the conclusion of APP Board member Mike Mochizuki who is Associate Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and holds the Japan-US Relations Chair in Memory of Gaston Sigur. In October 2010, he gave an interview to APP member Richard Katz who is editor of The Oriental Economist (TOE). TOE's monthly and daily reports are must-reads by those interested and involved in US-Japan relations.
We have reprinted with permission the interview here:
TOE: I want to ask you about the broader implications of the Senkakus incident for Japan-China relations, threat perceptions of China and so forth. But let’s begin with incident itself, in which, according to Tokyo, a Chinese fishing boat deliberately collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel. Do you think the collision was a premeditated testing of Japan by Beijing, or was it something that just happened and Beijing in the aftermath decided to take a tough line?
Mochizuki: I just don’t know. There’s a lot of speculation about that. I don’t know how Tokyo views it, but I’m going to try and find out when I visit in a couple weeks.
TOE: Why did Beijing take such a tough stance afterwards?
Mochizuki: One way to understand is to compare this incident to past intrusions by foreign fishing boats and such into Japan’s territorial waters or even onto the Senkakus islands themselves. There was an incident back in 2004 when seven Chinese landed on the Senkakus. This was during the Koizumi administration when Sino-Japanese relations were not good. The Japanese took them into custody, but then deported them shortly thereafter, and Koizumi made a statement about how this incident should not damage the bilateral relationship.
There was another incident in 2008 that involved a collision between a Taiwanese fishing boat and a Japanese Coast Guard frigate. In that incident, Japan’s chief representative in Taiwan ended up apologizing to the captain of the Taiwanese boat.
TOE: But in the latter case, the Taiwanese released a video showing that the Japanese vessel collided with them, not vice versa. In the latest incident, Tokyo charges that the Chinese fishing boat initiated the collision, but Tokyo has not yet released the video.
Mochizuki: That’s right. What I’m trying to get at is why the Chinese protested so strongly in this case. One possibility is that, in the past, even though there was a detention of the violator, there was a relatively quick move towards release. In this case, by contrast, the Japanese decided to hang on to the captain—while releasing the other crew members—and stipulating that they were going to go through this legal procedure implying that the captain could even be indicted and put on trial.
So from the Chinese point of view, this was going against past precedent. The Chinese protest, which was relatively ritualized at the beginning, then became increasingly intense. From Beijing’s perspective, to have a Taiwanese government stand up to Tokyo and get an apology, and for Beijing not to do the same would lead to criticisms among nationalists in China. That could be voiced on the internet or by those in government circles who might want to criticize the current leadership for not being tough enough with the Japanese.
I’m not justifying the Chinese reaction. I’m only trying to explain and understand it.
TOE: You’re hypothesizing Beijing’s move as a reaction to certain pressures, nationalistic emotions, and political infighting. But could it have been deliberate testing: let’s see what we can get away with, let’s see if we can intimidate the Japanese?
Mochizuki: That’s definitely a plausible hypothesis. And none of the facts that we know so far can falsify that hypothesis. But it’s one thing to speculate and another to claim that this is, in fact, what Beijing was doing. I think it’s irresponsible for some commentators to make that claim without any clear evidence. The Chinese decision-making process is not very transparent. So we may never know.
TOE: Do you think that, in the end, the Chinese overreached, and did themselves some harm in the eyes of other Asian neighbors? Or, do you think they actually came off looking tough and now countries throughout Asia will be afraid to mess with them?
Mochizuki: I think this was a diplomatic setback for China. They overplayed their hand. One example is the demand for apology and compensation after the Japanese released the captain. They could have acted immediately to defuse tensions, but they did not do that. I think that damaged China’s reputation among Asian countries, not just Japan. In recent months, countries in the region have become increasingly wary of China because of its assertive behavior. For example, Chinese patrol boats have pursued and even shooting at Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea. This behavior has provoked ASEAN states to cooperate diplomatically to counter China. Among other things, it led them to work with the US government and to get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to talk publicly about the importance of peaceful management and resolution of the territorial issues in the South China Sea and the importance of navigational freedom. Clinton’s comments led to a very strong and emotional, but ineffective, response by the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi.
Another example was the Chinese uproar about the announcement of US and Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea.
Two years ago people were talking about how China’s diplomacy was so adroit, how effective it had been in reassuring the region and getting the region to cooperate with China. People were saying China was really effective in using its “soft power.” Now, the question is: what’s happened to all that, and why is China overplaying its hand? Among expert Sinologists, people have very different answers to that question.
TOE: It’s one thing for China to refuse to meet the Japanese ambassador or to cut Chinese tourist trips to Japan. But it seems as if they crossed a dangerous line when they arrested four Japanese business people— assuming they’re innocent—and especially when they embargoed exports of rare earth minerals to Japan. Beijing denied having done it, but companies report having been cut off for a while. Won’t that make people in other countries reluctant to rely upon China? Is this a big deal, particularly if it’s repeated, or is it just one harsher tactic?
Mochizuki: It is a big deal, certainly if it’s repeated. It would further convince the Japanese and maybe other Asian countries— even countries that may have been leaning towards China—to see the Chinese as bullies. So if China were to repeat this kind of behavior, it would be very damaging to China’s diplomatic reputation.
As to the impact of this single use of arrests and embargo, it all depends on the timing of those actions and whether they had any impact on the Japanese decision to release the captain. Calling the Japanese Ambassador to China in the middle of the night, and berating him is one thing. But the other two actions went beyond the routine protests in the past. And so in some sense it’s plausible to argue that, those measures, although crossing the line, may have been particularly effective against the Japanese in the short term. But the long-term impact is that now the Japanese are extremely wary of China, and it has cultivated negative views throughout the region towards China.
TOE: How do you assess Japan’s handling of the incident?
Mochizuki: Not good. It seems that Tokyo decided it wanted to use the incident as a way of signaling to China that Japan was going to apply its domestic laws, and to follow through on its legal process. But Japan released the Chinese captain before that process had gone to its logical end. This was terrible. It suggested Japan was being weak and bowing to Chinese pressure. Moreover, the Kan administration claimed that the Naha prosecutor’s office made that decision independently. But the prosecutor gave a diplomatic and political reason for the release. Most people in and outside of Japan feel that there was probably some kind of political intervention.
The Kan team mishandled this. They should have anticipated China’s sharp reaction, because Japan had departed from past practice of swift deportation—a practice that was followed even under Koizumi.
TOE: Is this incident a turning point in the “threat perception” of China by Japan and by other countries? Or, is it just a bad incident whose impact will fade?
Mochizuki: Even before this incident, there was increasing concern, about China within Japan’s security policy community. They were concerned about China’s increasing military presence and activities. They were also concerned about activities of non-military actors, like fishing boats and survey ships. They saw this as increasingly assertive and, in some cases, aggressive. Japanese defense analysts linked this behavior to an overarching Chinese maritime strategy, of “anti-access” and “area denial,” i.e. the ability to prevent the navies of other countries from having access to the waters near China, especially in the East China and South China seas. The 2010 Japanese Defense White Paper has the most extensive analysis—not just of the Chinese military buildup and activities—but for the first time at attempt to provide some clear explanation or motivations for Chinese behavior.
So, the Senkakus incident basically reinforced a tendency that had already been growing within the Japanese security policy community. That’s not surprising to me at all. The real question for me is whether this incident will convince others in Japan: those that have, up to now, been less concerned about Chinese military activities, the people who were much more focused on the benefits that the Chinese market gives to the Japanese economy. These people wanted to promote community-building with the
Chinese, much greater investments, and so forth. They are typified by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. If this incident has changed the perceptions of China among the latter type of people in Japan, that would be a sea change. We don’t know yet.
This incident may end up being seen as a turning point, as the point at which Japan reassessed its threat environment, and decided to develop a more robust defense response to China’s military modernization. Or, this incident could end up being seen as a problem of misperception, miscommunication and mishandling of a very sensitive issue, from which both sides will learn so as to avoid further such incidents.
TOE: There is another way to look at it. There is a mutual economic dependency between China and Japan. Japan certainly needs China as a market and a source for cheaper imports. At the same time, China’s entire economic miracle was built on globalization, i.e. on trade and foreign direct investment and transfers of technology. China is not the Soviet Union, with its relative autarchy. And so, whatever ambitions
Beijing may have—e.g. its talk about the “first island chain” and “second island chain” (see August TOE, pg. 10)—it would seem that there’s a limit to how far the Chinese can go. But this depends on how they perceive the impact of their actions on others—whether it intimidates them or antagonizes them and provokes a counter-reaction. And it depends on fights about this among different actors in Beijing.
So, here’s my question: how strong are the pressures in both capitals to pull back and say: “Wait a minute, this is getting a little out of hand.”?
Mochizuki: I think there are strong pressures on both sides. That’s why, after the initial tough stance of demanding an apology and compensation, Chinese official spokespeople have toned down the rhetoric and have now emphasized the importance of a mutually beneficial relationship. Prime Minister Kan and Secretary General Katsuya Okada, while being firm, have emphasized the importance of stable and cooperative relations with China. When former DPJ Secretary General Yukio Edano had some harsh words about China, both Okada and Kan made statements that contradicted those of Edano.
TOE: On the other hand, you still have Chinese tourist boycotts; you still have Chinese not showing up at certain pre-arranged meetings.
Mochizuki: If it one wants to look at this in an optimistic light, it’s going to take a while. You can’t go through a crisis like this and then in a matter of a week, say everything is nice again. Defusing the emotions will be done incrementally. But significant progress has already been made. For example, Prime Minister Kan and Prime Wen Jiabao recently met during the ASEM[Asia-Europe] summit meeting in Brussels and expressed their commitment to improve bilateral relations.
TOE: So your sense is that Beijing is trying to lower the temperature?
Mochizuki: Yes, or at least certain elements of the government, including President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. I think they’re firmly committed to maintaining good relations with Japan. There is a lot of disagreement among China-watchers in Japan and the US as to exactly what’s going on in China. Some people say it is the result of the increasing power capabilities of China, that Beijing is overestimating its power and so has become brasher. But others hypothesize that, there may be splits within the power structure. They see the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) pushing a much more nationalistic line, and the top civilian leadership pushing for stabilization. The Chinese are now entering a leadership transition phase, and nationalistic issues are highly prone to being used for domestic political purposes.
TOE: China is sending more patrol boats in the area, as is Japan. Do you see more testing of Japan by China and the possibility of increasingly frequent incidents?
Mochizuki: There is the possibility that each side is beginning to kind of show its muscle and there might be a face-off. But another possibility is that each country is sending patrol boats precisely to prevent this kind of incident. Part of the Japanese Coast Guard mission has been to prevent Japanese nationalists from landing on the Senkakus and from doing something that would alienate China. If the Chinese leadership has a stake in good Sino-Japanese relations, it would be in their interest to make sure that you don’t have overzealous or irresponsible fishermen getting too close to the Senkakus in order to prevent a replay of this kind of event.
TOE: Very interesting point. In Tokyo, Kan’s polls have plummeted due to his mishandling of the affair (see pg. 1), including his perceived weakness in releasing the captain prematurely. Does that public reaction mean that Kan will have less of a free hand, because he will be under pressure to show he can stand up to China?
Mochizuki: From a national interest point of view, Kan has an interest in stabilizing the bilateral relationship. But there’s no question that the Japanese public feels that the Kan government blinked and was weak. So, he has to tread very carefully.
Kan wanted to show that, unlike Hatoyama, he had a steady hand on international affairs. But, in some sense, this incident is analogous to what happened with Hatoyama on the US-Japan relationship of the relocation of the US air marine bases on Futenma, Okinawa. Hatoyama led the charge and then, when the going got tough, he backed down. The Kan administration likewise charged hard and then, or so it appears to the public, blinked when China acted tough.
TOE: That leads to our final topic: the impact of this incident on US-Japan ties.
Mochizuki: Despite the mishandling of this incident by Tokyo, it did succeed in getting the United States and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to unequivocally state that the defense of the Senkakus comes under the purview of the US-Japan Security Treaty. That was a positive thing for Japan.
I don’t believe that the Futenma issue is going to be resolved any time soon. Despite that issue, policy makers in both capitals now recognize that there are a lot of other important things in the US-Japan alliance. If the Chinese wanted to weaken US-Japan ties, they’ve done exactly the reverse.
TOE: Will it change Washington’s stance on Futenma, or at least the tone in which it speaks to Tokyo, compared to the Hatoyama era?
Mochizuki: I don’t think it has any impact on Futenma. Even if we didn’t have this incident, the tone had already begun to change. The key right now is the Okinawa gubernatorial election in November. I think American policy-makers are wise enough to know, that if they push too hard now it could backfire on them.
TOE: So, aside from Clinton’s statement that you cited, in what ways do you see this incident affecting the US-Japan security relationship?
Mochizuki: There are now press reports that the United States and Japan may hold joint defense exercises in the East China Sea. This idea was already in the works this summer. Now, due to this incident, there is an even more compelling reason to hold that exercise. So, again, this is a case of reinforcing trends that preceded the incident.